Hangzhou is nearly 200km from Shanghai, but the speed and efficiency of the Chinese rail system makes a day trip or weekend getaway incredible easy, and offers a tranquil respite from the chaos of the city on the Huangpu.
West Lake is the biggest draw here, and an efficient trip to Hangzhou would include a half-day spent cycling across causeways, over stone bridges, and along garden paths, before heading into the city and dining on one of the central pedestrian streets.
The lake is beautiful, as are the many parks and promenades along its bank, but it’s important to note that this all is largely a construct. Until the 8th century, West Lake was a marshy lagoon: this “natural” paradise is artificial.
The sense of artifice permeates much of the cityscape as well. Though the restored roads of the city do hint at a classical China, there is a definite sense that all this is an imitation, a reconstruction of an idealized past that may or may not have ever existed.
Walking along Zhongshan Lu is an incredibly pleasant experience. The shallow canal lined with benches and crossed by numerous bridges contributes to a vibrant street life, but you’re more likely to find a Costa Coffee than a dumpling stand, and one can’t escape the feeling that this is all terribly inauthentic.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. As a westerner in China, I’m coming to realize that the occidental obsession with authenticity may not be shared by modern Chinese – at least not the ones in the Urban Planning office. With China’s long, somewhat tumultuous history, it should come as no surprise that architects seek improvement in reconstruction, making use of whatever new materials and methods are available.
Baochu pagoda, atop Baoshishan north of West Lake, is an iron and brick pagoda typical of the Republic of China years. In its time it was surely seen as an improvement upon the past constructions of timber. As China continues to re-open to the world, cultural sites are undergoing almost constant renewal. The new Leifeng Pagoda – where a massive steel structure reaches out from beneath the eaves and a rank of glass elevators whisks tourists to the top – is an example of this, and it should not be surprising that the pagoda, atop a small hill, is accessible by stone steps augmented with an escalator.